Bird Research - Key to Survival

I went to graduate school at Washington State University (WSU), and as such I receive an alumni magazine on a quarterly basis. In the current issue (Winter 2008/9) there is an article about the Conner Zoological Museum, which is located on the campus of WSU, in Pullman, Washington. The article discusses a story of how research and the understanding of ecosystem functionality gained therein, can be crucial to bird survival. It is a story about a small secretive seabird form the Pacific Northwest called the Marbled Murrelet.

Marbled Murrelet Nesting in an Ancient Douglas Fir Tree, California

Marbled Murrelet Nesting in an Ancient Douglas Fir Tree, California Photographic Print

Blair, James P.

40 in. x 30 in.

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Framed   Mounted

But first some information on an excellent resource for people doing research on birds - the Connor Museum. The museum began almost as soon as Washington State College opened its doors in 1892. The Conner houses one of the largest collections of birds in the Pacific Northwest - about 15,000 specimens (as a quick aside the Conner also has one of the largest collections of mammals in the country). The museum loans specimens to scientists around the world.


Tranquility Art Print

Chun, Tan

38 in. x 26 in.

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Framed Mounted

One such scientist was the Canadian ecologist, Ryan Norris. Norris wanted to know why a small seabird, the marbled murrelet was sliding towards extinction. The bird nests in the tops of trees in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The extensive logging of these forests was cited as a likely culprit. But Norris thought there could be another factor - their diet.

Heavy Rainfall Partially Obscures a View of a Douglas Fir Tree

Heavy Rainfall Partially Obscures a View of a Douglas Fir Tree Photographic Print

18 in. x 24 in.

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Framed Mounted

The birds were described in the past as being seen eating small fish. More recently they have been observed eating the shrimp like creatures known as krill. All science begins with a question or questions to be answered and the questions for Ryan Norris were: Had the birds diet actually changed? Was this change contributing to their decline? To help answer these questions he turned, among other places, to the Connor Museum.

Woodland Walk

Woodland Walk Art Print

36 in. x 24 in.

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Framed Mounted

Among the Connor's many bird specimens are those of the marbled murrelet collected from British Columbia in the 1940s. These specimens were to provide some of the answers as to what the bird ate in decades past. Using a technique called stable isotope analysis (SIA) Norris analyzed bits of feathers snipped off from the Connors 1940's vintage murrelets. Whatever a bird eats ends up in its feathers, so an analysis showed that the bird had indeed consumed fish in the days past when fish were plentiful. When overharvesting decimated the fish stocks the bird was forced to switch to krill - a food supply that requires more time and thus energy to harvest. Using data on reproductive success, Norris was able to link the reduction murrelet's reproductive output with the change in diet. This is important information for people's efforts to help the marbled murrelet's populations recover. Indeed, we now know that the bird needs old growth trees and a diet rich in fish.

This is an example of the power of research to help promote the health of ecosystems and the birds they contain. In this case, promoting the well being of the marbled murrelet through the health of fish populations, humans help themselves. What's not to like about having plentiful fish stocks? It's what they call in business a "win-win" proposition.


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